Episode 3 of Louie: Bellies and Balloons

Dear Evan, Phil, and Jane,

Louie’s Miami is a sort of virtual reality desert that perpetually “unmans” him. A man’s voice (gay—Louis CK likes to make a point of not-flagging-but-flagging gay flight attendants) announces they’ll be landing soon. In Miami, the very first people we see aren’t so much people as they are two bellies, women’s, invisible under fashionably ruched fabric. At check-in, a shirtless lanky man’s belly dominates the scene, and the camera lingers on it and refuses to follow Louie to the check-in counter. The next day, as he applies sunscreen (always a depressing reminder of one’s mortality), he gets knocked down by a mixed group of young bellies. “Sorry, man, I didn’t see you there,” they say. There’s no malice; he’s just not visible to them. They almost literally walk through him. Somewhat recovered, about to take off his shirt, the camera zooms in on the concave stomachs of the women around him. Louie pulls his shirt down and goes back to his hotel room, where he orders and eats a series of sandwiches and falls disgustingly asleep.

There’s no joy, no surprise, no adrenaline, just a never-ending dirge-like meditation on his grotesque existence. But what’s interesting about it is that it’s basically silent: it’s the visual representation of his usual stand-up, and the stand-up has gone missing. This episode has Louie at his most blindingly inarticulate—perhaps even more so than in Episode 1, where he forces April to break up with herself. That’s not quite right: it’s not the Louie himself is more inarticulate, it’s that the audience’s experience of the show is non-narrated. Usually we have Louis CK, stand-up comic, to tell us a little about what Louie is doing. In Episode 1 we had April to interpret Louie for us. But in Episode 3 we’re as close to Louie as we’re ever likely to get: we’re seeing the experiences he always jokes about from the inside.

Except for one, of course, and it’s a big one: we don’t see Louie jacking off. Louis CK has dedicated an entire episode to Louie’s defense of masturbation. This is not coincidence.

So what happens to Louie in this oasis of disciplined bellies? Well, for one thing, the gorgeous people are effectively making it impossible for him to be there. He spoils the thing by being part of it—you see that in his face. He’s the thing his stand-up is always in some sense about being: an apparently white dude who isn’t especially attractive. So he starts looking for alternative Things To Be.

At first he tries out the routine of an old man, and gets up early to swim before the Speedorati descend en masse. Other old men wave. It’s a whole outsider’s world he’s discovering—a pool of other lonely men with saggy bellies.

In being unsexed, he’s also being feminized, of course—he’s paralyzingly body-conscious despite his social invisibility. Even his things are invisible—the chair guy stacks the other chairs on top of his other things without so much as a pause.

Then someone sees him and pulls him out the water. “Don’t be embarrassed, man, anyone can lose control in the water,” Ramón says, kindly.

“I wasn’t drowning, but thanks for saving me,” says Louie when they’re saying their first goodbyes. The show loves that line because Ramón is obviously Louie’s prince charming. He’s young. His belly is enviable. He belongs in the beach universe, but he prefers Louie’s company to the bellies. He pulls Louie out of the water against his will, rescues him from the Island of Old Geezers and turns him into the little kid he was when he last spoke Spanish. They chase chickens (the camera, incidentally, beheads them in this scene more often than not—they’re two bellies chasing chickens). They eat. Then the camera cuts to a bunch of American-themed murals in Spanish. Murals of George Washington, “Padre de la Independencia” and a Mt. Rushmore mural with “God bless and protect America” are interlaced with murals of Pedro Knight and Libertad Lamarque. The question of which is and isn’t the “real” America is everywhere in this episode, and it’s typical of Louie that Louie’s contact with Ramón’s world is based on a series of misunderstandings: he wasn’t drowning and he isn’t gay, but to insist too hard upon either of those things might close the wormhole to this happy dimension.

There are two noteworthy moments: one is Ramón’s insistence that laughter is a gift. He thanks Louie for making him laugh even as Louie tries not to thank him for being saved (and objects to the girl taking the strawberry he didn’t give). I don’t know what to do with that moment. Maybe it’s underscoring that Louie is becoming more ungenerous as a function of his isolation, in which case his inability to clarify to Ramón that he isn’t gay is both a symptom of his inarticulacy and a marker of his growth. It’s an act of generosity to go ahead and let Ramón read him the wrong way.

The second noteworthy moment is when Ramón introduces him to his uncle who beckons Louie closer and says, “Louie, un amigo es un hermano, y un hermano es uno mismo.” A friend is a brother, and a brother is oneself. This obviously speaks to Louie’s self-loathing: he can only make a friend when he stops despising himself long enough to do something else, but it’s probably doing something else too, which I hope isn’t the Latin equivalent of the Magical Negro.

I don’t know what to make of the bellies, guys, but they’re everywhere—bellies are both appetitive and disciplined; they seem to contain the principles of deprivation and satisfaction both. Take the girl who takes Louie’s strawberry. Her concave belly nevertheless takes from Louie’s overstuffed one, and he’s pissed. He forces the belly to recognize its moral bankruptcy.

This doesn’t satisfy, though. Louie isn’t full yet. He’s as bitter and bloated as he is existentially hungry. It’s when Ramón comes up and slaps him on the back, making Louie spill coffee, that a different model comes into focus. For what it’s worth, Ramón’s habits of ingestion are accordingly specific and spare: “I’ll have a Sprite,” he says when Louie offers to buy him a drink to thank him for saving his life. Louie, in the meantime asks for some “brown liquid in a glass.” Ramón doesn’t ask for an intoxicant, whereas Louie wants a glass of brown oblivion.

Maybe Ramón is just giving Louie a way to see himself as contributing something good to the word. “Are you funny?” he asks. “Then I did a good thing by saving you.” And the self-loathing goes down a notch, and Louie spends a night being silly, and hates balloons a little less.

The last scene is worth recapping:

“First of all, I have zero anything, okay?”

“I guess what, the thing is that, I feel like…”

“See? I’m gonna stop you right there.”

“When my uncle says all men are brothers, it’s true right?”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever—I’m not trying anything that—and I don’t mean that—I mean, you know.”

There’s no standup until the very end of this episode. Before that there’s a clip that starts with Louie saying “I hate balloons.” It gets cut off, because it’s as much a part of Louie’s sterile life cycle as anything else. Louie hates balloons. He’s the jaded comedian who knows all the jokes, the guy whose funny muscles are exhausted, the guy you can’t get to  laugh. The standup only shows up at the end, with a speech about heterosexual men being anxious. “You can’t really throw wonderful around so much,” he says, of an encounter that clearly was, at every level, wonderful.

Is this episode actually about letting go of some parts of Louie’s heteronormative “American white guy” masculinity and letting the parts that don’t fit into his comedy breathe? Is this the real Miami? Or is Ramon’s Miami just a Never Never Land, a day Louie got to spend as an overgrown kid in an inclusive America that doesn’t revolve around eating too much and jacking off? Is it about finding that your roots are so painfully particular that you can’t feel like you fit in even when people call you “my brother” and claim you? Maybe it’s about understanding that friends are brothers and brothers are us, but that’s not as comfortable or comforting a slippage as it seems.

Muchos pantalones, man,

Lili

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